By: Khalid H Khan

As the incredibly popular HBL Pakistan Super League (PSL) gets under way with its sixth edition, the biggest hype is actually not about the potentially scintillating cricket to come. For the moment, the buzz is about the 34-fixture tournament being confined to just the country’s biggest two cities — Karachi and Lahore — thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike at the back-end of the preliminary phase last March and indeed, the eventual play-offs of Season Five in November, the competition’s real stakeholders, ie the fans, will be allowed entry to the matches. Or at least some of them. Twenty per cent of the capacity of the stadia can be filled by ticket-holders, under the guidance set forth by the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC). This means that 7,500 spectators on each of the match days can show up at the 34,000-plus National Stadium of Karachi (NSK), while Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, which can accommodate roughly 27,000 spectators, can welcome some 5,500 zealous supporters of the sport. The presence of the spectators, even in much smaller numbers than before, will surely infuse more atmosphere into the spectacle. Given the fact that there are nine days of double-header action ahead, with no less than two-thirds of them in Karachi, approximately 165,500 ticket-holders are expected to turn up at the biggest two cricketing centres of the country, a welcome respite for cricket-starved fans. In normal circumstances the coffers of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) would have swelled up considerably through gate money, since the turnouts would have been around 775,000 at these venues if full capacity had been allowed. But we mustn’t overlook the fact that these are not normal circumstances, and everything has had to be meticulously planned out. Even the opening ceremony had a chunk of the predominantly music-based entertainment pre-recorded at a dedicated studio in Turkey. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter which among the celebrated list of performers — singer Atif Aslam, rap artist Imran Khan, the model-turned-actress Humaima Malick or the PSL 6 anthem team of Naseebo Lal, Aima Baig and Young Stunners — won over more fans through their intonations.Away from the glamorous attractions of the music world, it is important to recap more serious issues. It is a miracle that the concerned authorities have managed to complete an exhausting schedule of domestic tournaments without much hassle, and the PCB must be saluted for being the only cricket board in the world to achieve this distinction. In between, they not just successfully hosted South Africa in recent weeks for the first time in more than 13 years, but also Zimbabwe late last year. The return of top flight international cricket to the country is, of course, based on the unqualified success of the franchise-based PSL. The latest jamboree is the second straight one to be held entirely on home soil under the now-customary parameters of watertight security measures, but the first full edition to be staged under the Covid-19 ‘bubble’ protocols. Everything in the world now seems rather surreal. Despite the enforced restrictions, the battle on the playing field over the next four weeks is likely to be as exhilarating as one can wish. Irrespective of who will ultimately emerge as the champions of PSL 6, the presence of the overseas contingent in one of the most competitive T20 leagues is a major attraction every year. The biggest draw is the Afghanistan spin wizard Rashid Khan who will be making an appearance for the first time in the PSL, for the Lahore Qalandars. And for good reason. The 22-year-old is currently ranked the top T20 bowler at the international level. Apart from Rashid, his countrymen and fellow spinners Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Qais Ahmed are also certain to play pivotal roles for Peshawar Zalmi and the Quetta Gladiators, respectively.

The rest of the overseas cast are the usual suspects, barring Colin Munro, who has pulled out of the two-time former champions Islamabad United’s squad owing to the quarantine laws of his native New Zealand. If the left-handed opening batsman had made himself available, he wouldn’t have been able to get home until the middle of May, some seven weeks after the PSL concludes, with the March 22 final in Lahore! Among the local stars, Pakistan’s all-format captain Babar Azam’s form with the bat definitely holds the key for Karachi Kings. The Kings will be desperate to avoid being champions for the shortest-ever duration in PSL history. That is what would happen if they fumble in their title defence. They only became champions on November 17 last year, after humbling archrivals Lahore Qalandars in the final at the National Stadium. On that occasion, it was Babar who had starred in the tricky 135-run chase, with an assured, 49-ball, undefeated knock of 63, as the Kings were crowned winners for the first time with just eight deliveries to spare. Lahore Qalandars, arguably the most sought-after franchise, finally overcame the jinx last year of finishing at the bottom in each of the first four editions. They qualified for their play-offs for the first time and then even reached the final. They’ll surely hope to go one better in PSL 6. That could be a dream-come-true moment for the side, which thrives on its ever-popular anthem of ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’, with a final in their hometown. Sarfaraz Ahmed’s best chance of showcasing himself as a cricketer still worthy of competing at the top level is to lead from the front as the captain of the 2019 PSL winners Quetta Gladiators. The Gladiators missed out on the play-offs for the first time in 2020 and ended up only ahead of the last-placed Islamabad United. The embattled wicketkeeper-batsman has the unique honour of being the solitary player to skipper his franchise for the sixth year running, under the guidance of legendary Sir Vivian Richards as the mentor. Quetta Gladiators, meanwhile, would be without ex-West Indies opener Chris Gayle for their early fixtures. His partial replacement is Faf du Plessis, the former South Africa skipper who recently toured Pakistan for the Test series, before Gayle arrives for the back-end of the Karachi leg and the fixtures in Lahore. Du Plessis had previously played during the PSL 5 play-offs for Peshawar Zalmi. With Darren Sammy now as their head coach, Peshawar Zalmi have always been among the favourites and, along with Karachi Kings, have never finished outside the play-offs in all past seasons. They captured the trophy in 2017 under Sammy’s leadership and finished as runners-up in the subsequent two editions, losing out to Islamabad United and Quetta Gladiators in that order. Now it all depends on how Wahab Riaz inspires Peshawar Zalmi in his first full season as their captain. Multan Sultans could count themselves as extremely unfortunate during PSL 5. They cruised to the top of the six-team standings after chalking up seven victories, but the eight-month hiatus because of the pandemic severely hampered their momentum. They lost the Qualifier against the Karachi Kings in a Super Over during the play-offs, before Lahore Qalandars brushed past Shan Masood’s men in the second Eliminator. Meanwhile, among the greenhorns likely to emerge as future Pakistan stars are Qasim Akram, a batting all-rounder who came to prominence during the domestic competitions this season and who has been bought by Karachi Kings, and 18-year-old Saim Ayub, a promising left-handed batsman who is in the Quetta Gladiators squad. Another name to watch for is Peshawar Zalmi’s Mohammad Imran, who hails from the scenic valley of Swat and, at the age of just 20, is rated highly as a left-arm seamer.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 21st, 2021

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